Fairytale of Berlin: Curator Interview

Despite its whimsical connotations, “fairytale” is a tricky word. It may suggest folklore and fantasy, but it also has everything to do with unattainable ideals. Often, fairytales are variations on the age-old Adam and Eve theme, stories about desire and its sinister consequences.

Fairytale of Berlin, the current exhibition at Scion Space in Los Angeles, turns the complexity of modern day fairytales into a visceral, material experience. Curated by Janine Bean and Matthais Bergemann, Fairytale delves into the mythical appeal that has brought so many international artists to Berlin over the past decade. The eleven artists and one artist collective included in the exhibition hail from different parts of the world and have distinctly different reasons for participating in Berlin’s burgeoning art scene. But now they’ve become part of the hype and have added their own voices to the creative production that’s stewing in Berlin neighborhoods.

Fairytale of Berlin is a smartly organized, visually seductive exhibition that highlights the sensual, expressive potentials of contemporary art while simultaneously questioning art’s place in contemporary culture. In the below email exchange, curators Bean and Bergemann talked to me about their vision for the exhibition, the ups and downs of Berlin’s thriving art scene, and what it’s like to live in a city that is constantly changing.

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Catherine Wagley: First, I’m curious about how the idea for this exhibition came

about. How did you decide to bring the aura of Berlin’s art scene to Los Angeles?

Janine Bean and Matthias Bergemann: The idea for this exhibition arose in 2007. There was an urge among us and some artists to initiate our own independent show. Of course, there are numerous exhibitions continuously going on around us and some of these certainly seem very attractive. But the obstacles to take part in a decent show often are just too high: one has to be part of an art establishment, part of a certain crowd, work through endless bureaucracy or [sometimes your work] simply doesn’t fit into the required style. So what do you do when you don’t really match but still like to do a good exhibition? You create one on your own.

We wanted to give young, unestablished artists from our surroundings, which is Berlin, an opportunity to show their works.

Our friend Gregory Teodori is the director of Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Berlin which is located just across the street from our gallery. So when Evan Cerasoli from Scion came around our town in September 2008 to check out the art scene here, he said hello to Greg, who advised him to peek in our gallery. Evan then did interviews with our artists Franziska Klotz and Vanessa von Heydebreck and with Janine herself. Janine told Evan of our project.

Fairytale of Berlin was taking place in Copenhagen at that time and Evan obviously became inspired by the idea of having this show at Scion Installation. Three weeks later we received an email by him inviting us to come over in January. Astonishingly, he meant January 2009, not 2010 as we first thought.

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CW: What was it like for the two of you to collaborate on Fairytale of Berlin? (I know you’ve collaborated before.)

JB and MB: It certainly helped that we had done a lot of cooperation before this show. We know how to work together which means we also know who of us is specifically good in each task. And since intense work can’t always go smooth together we also need to know how to quarrel.

But collaboration on this project can’t really be seen without the participation of the artists, because they are so closely involved. That participation ranges from a very big help and assistance to irritation, mostly when it comes to interfering in the curatoral job. The relaxed way everything finally worked out in L.A. is due to good briefing and preparation in advance, willingness of everyone for teamwork and of course the broad backup the people of Scion provided.

CW: In the press releases and curatorial statement for Fairytale of Berlin, you talk a lot about collisions and convergences–collisions between aspirations and reality or convergences of artists from diverse cultural backgrounds, for instance. These two themes are also visible in the artwork (like in Erik Andersen’s paintings, in which uncontrollable urges and authorship seem to become the same thing). How did you go about choosing the work for this exhibition?

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JB and MB: The theme can be understood in two different ways. First there is the attraction and charm of an ever-changing magic town with a twisted and sensible past. There was and still is a romantic perception of Berlin creating indeed some urban fairytales. This is, in our opinion, especially the case and vivid in the subcultural art scene of Berlin. As a result, you can retrieve a specific inspiration in the artworks of Berlin’s artists.

The second understanding of the theme derives, in a way, out of the first and has a more ironic sense. The just described pathos has become the hype and lure for a lot of art-immigrants, whether they come from elsewhere in Germany or from around the world. They may find what they expected, like bohemian people, easy living in a lot of urbanity for relatively low costs and heaps of other artists, galleries, exhibitions and art-events. But they definitely are also confronted with an increasingly sober general perception of their work and lifestyle. The commercialization and increasing quantification of art production and trade in Berlin leave a lot of artists aside or give these unestablished artists a harder time to stand their ground. From this point of view, the thematic Fairytale simply is not quite true; what collides are aspiration and reality. But again the result is a sort of–albeit darker–inspiration you can find in some of the artworks of the show.

What we also brought together are artists of different milieus inside Berlin. The participating artists are former students of the two art academies of Berlin, autodidacts, or have moved from and learned abroad. So we actually have representations of at least three different networks that usually don’t stick together. Based on these different backgrounds are, of course, particular modes of expression.

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CW: You also mentioned surplus in your curatorial statement. The way the show is hung speaks to this idea, as does the content and aura of a lot of the included work. Many of the paintings and objects felt heavy, romantic and indulgent–Klotz uses paint liberally while Vacheva’s work seems to confront cultural decadence. What did you ultimately hope Fairytale of Berlin would say about surplus?

JB and MB: When mentioning a surplus we actually tried to describe one aspect of the social situation of the artists in Berlin. (We know this refers to one of our weaker, i.e. not so good to understand sentences in the text of the catalog. Vanessa pointed this out to us, but well, we didn’t find a better way to circumscribe this.) What we were trying to indicate is the increasing number of artists, artworks and galleries in relation to a limited public interest and market. To call this a surplus may in this sense not be very sensitive towards the art as such, but it is a reality when it comes to public reception and the art market.

We are happy though about the way you understood the word surplus in the context of the exhibition, namely in a qualitative sense. Rather generally speaking the way you reflect on Franziska Klotz and Iva Vacheva, so do we as on many other aspects of the presented artworks and it exemplifies the complexity of the exhibition. So if there is inflation in the art market of an economical kind we can provide evidence that this has no degrading effect on the quality and richness of the works of upcoming artists.

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CW: There’s not a lot of dry conceptualism in this exhibition. In fact, all the work very much embraces the expressive qualities of material. Is this indicative of what’s currently going on in Berlin?

JB and MB: It seems there exists a certain stereotype and anticipation on art coming from Germany and there is surely some reason for that. (We especially like the German nihilists in The Big Lebowski.) We are simply not big fans of dry conceptualism. In fact, when we came across documenta in Kassel last year and were facing a lot of sixties minimalism and the like, we felt plainly bored.

We like a strong expression in material as well as in color and subject. This is, by the way, also true for the drawings of Vanessa von Heydebreck: though she applies her lines in a very reduced style, the results are very concentrated forms of straight and archetypal depictions. The strength of expression in paintings of Erik Andersen and Franziska Klotz is obvious: they are working with plenty of oil color, spattering it in Franziska’s case, and additionally spraying backgrounds or elements. Thus these two have found their ways to formally emancipate themselves from mere classic techniques without letting go of fertile roots.

It’s hard to say what is indicative for Berlin right now when you find yourself in a such subjective position that you feel you can’t see the wood for trees. Conceptualism, for example, is of course still alive in Berlin and some of it really isn’t that dry at all. To be honest, the next show in our gallery is going to carry a big concept on its shoulders.

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CW: Do you see the exhibition as criticizing the romanticizing of sub-cultures?

JB and MB: As described above, you may find this sort of criticism in the exhibition, but it wasn’t our main, not to mention our sole, intent.

CW: I wonder if you have an optimistic or pessimistic (or both) view of Berlin’s future as an art world center. Are there aspects of the Berlin art scene that may need to change in order for it to continue to thrive?

JB and MB: After having experienced the opening of the exhibition at Scion Installation, some points that could be better in Berlin are sometimes as obvious as simple: People in LA seem to go to an opening actually willing to LOOK at the art that is exhibited. They come in, take a catalog, really read the catalog, stand in a respectful distance in front of an artwork, don`t turn their backs on the art and take their time to watch the art. We have been on an opening here in Berlin yesterday evening and most of the people rather did the opposite.

But don’t get us wrong; we are not pessimistic about Berlin and its art. There is always a lot of change going on here, whether for good or for bad depends on moments and positions. But as long as it is not turning into a static shadow of itself, we definitely like to live and work on art here.

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